Rather than a short story today I thought I’d share an work in progress – the opening of the novel/ screenplay (working on them simultaneously) ‘The 100% Detective.’ The full story should be available early in 2019. Follow this blog to make sure you keep up to date, and any comments welcome!
“Frank Spenser?” she asked, looking down at my card.
They always do.
“It’s a long story.” I said.
She looked up at me from the card, and I realised she expected to hear it.
“My father changed his name by deed poll from ‘Black’ to ‘Spenser’ after becoming obsessed with Robert B. Parker’s novels back in the mid ‘70’s. He couldn’t get enough of those things.”
She looked blank.
“You don’t know the Spenser books?”
She shook her head.
I shrugged, “He changed my name. He didn’t watch much TV back then so…you know, he didn’t really see any problem with the Frank and all. My school days weren’t easy.”
“I’m sure.” She said.
“Yeah. It was pretty tough – still, my sister Diana had it worse when she married Charlie Dunn back in the early ‘80’s.”
She shook her head again, and I was reminded of a dog with an ear infection. I wondered briefly what she’d look like wearing a cone. My mind tends to do that sometimes. I snapped back to the matter at hand, “Diana and Charles?” I prompted.
She continued to give me nothing but a shake like a leaf on a particularly calm summer’s day.
“Charles and Diana?” I tried, a stunning piece of lexicographical disassociation and reassembly, “Spenser. Spencer…I appreciate the slight spelling differentiation doesn’t really work when using the spoken word.”
Her shake transformed slowly into an uncertain nod, while her smile remained expertly camouflaged, “Ah. Should I take it that you’re being whimsical, Mr. Spenser?”
I checked my watch just to make sure we hadn’t been transported back to 1956 and seeing all was good gave her my best whimsical smile. It always wowed.
She seemed to consider whether she could give me the card back and shut the door in my face without me noticing. I could have told her that that wasn’t going to happen: I’d notice. I’m a Private Investigator. Observation is one of my key skills. If my business card was bigger I’d have bullet pointed it on there.
“Shall we?” I asked, in an attempt to maintain the ‘50’s vibe she seemed comfortable with.
“Shall we…?” she asked back.
I thought that this could go on for some time so I gestured beyond her to the hallway she was standing guard over. If there was a password to enter I clearly hadn’t given it yet.
“Oh, yes, of course.” She said, and only glanced very briefly left and right to check the neighbours weren’t looking. They’d have been doing well to have seen through the thick privets – observational powers to match my own.
I followed her into the living room, managing not to knock over any of the porcelain pieces that festooned the hallway (I guessed she’d call it a reception or, if she was still in her ‘50’s mode perhaps a ‘receiving room’…) and accepted her seemingly reluctant offer of a seat.
“Thank you for coming Mr. Spenser.” She said, sitting herself and smoothing her long dress in front of her. I felt a sudden change in the dynamic – as if we’d moved from ‘50’s home counties period drama to ‘sit-com, where she appeared to be channelling a touch of Margo Ledbetter, “I suppose you’re wondering why I asked you here?”
Because I was in full professional mode I refrained from telling her that was supposed to be my line: to be fair I’d not had the chance to use it yet but was going to crowbar it into the first conversation I possibly could. But no, I let it go because this was a lady who needed my help. I wasn’t going to abuse that with cheap humour. I would find my bitten tongue was bleeding later though.
“That would be helpful, Ms. Laverty.” I said. I did not nearly say Lavatory. That would have been childish. I am not a child. I am a forty-three-year-old man with an Oxford University degree, and over fifteen years as a highly experienced marketer in one of the most respected agencies in the country. So I would not resort to such toilet humour.
“It’s Mrs. Laverty. I’m divorced.” she said. I wasn’t sure about the etiquette on titles in divorce situations so I just nodded, and proceeded to make a note on the iPhone I’d pulled out to google ‘post-divorce salutations’ – an iPhone didn’t have the finesse of an investigator’s notebook you could flip closed when you’d finished with all your questions, but it was easier for maps, fact checking and updating my website. Oh, and phone calls. So, after consideration I decided to forego the traditional moleskin journal and instead…
“I came across your website Mr. Spenser”, Mrs. Laverty said, interrupting my fourth wall breaking explanation, “and I have to say I was impressed with your record. Is it true?”
I shrugged modestly, “My record? Yes, it’s true – I have never had a case which was not resolved to full satisfaction.”
And it was true: I had never not solved a case.
Of course, if you wanted to get all pedantic about it you could also point out that I had never actually solved a case either, but I’d had enough copy checked by legal departments in my previous professional life to know that I was not breaking any law in boldly making this statement on my website www.SpenserforHire.com (I’m not sure how solid a ground I am on with the site name; the estate of the late, great Mr. Parker could come knocking on my door any day now.)
“Could you tell me about your last…” she seemed to struggle for the term, “engagement?”
I gave her my best early-John-Travolta-confident smile, “Of course – my last…engagement took me to Hong Kong. It was a complex situation: working with operatives from three continents. I can’t go into full details- non-disclosure agreements and whatnot. Client confidentiality is very important to me…”
She nodded in what I judged to be an appreciative manner.
“However, I can tell you that the…ah, project…was successful. It involved the safe delivery of a highly sensitive message which is going to have positive repercussions to people in a number of countries. I don’t want to say it will change ‘millions’ of lives out of modesty…” – in actual fact, I had little in the way of modesty, and it would, in further ‘actual fact’ affect the lives of millions. The advertising campaign for Conway’s Nipple Lightening Cream was already showing strong results and had been my last contribution at the Talisman agency before my ignominious exit, “…and I was singled out for recognition in the part I played.”. Again, this was true, which made my sacking less than three weeks later all the more bizarre – but that’s another story for another time.
She took all of this information in, considered it for a moment, and to my observational eye, she seemed overwhelmingly impressed. Why wouldn’t she?
“Your website price guidelines are much lower than anyone else’s I saw.”
OK, maybe not too impressed.
She was right – I was the cheapest in the book – or Web. I’d decided against advertising in the Yellow Pages. I’d researched my options there and found Private Detectives between Prisons and Private Healthcare- which made some sort of sense when you thought about it. Which I did. Too much. Often too much. There were two entries for Prisons, and at first glance, none for Private Detectives. I thought I’d discovered an untapped market opportunity until I saw the single line of bold print advising to see Detective Agencies. Turning back some eight hundred pages dispelled any hopes I had about unmined gold. The first entry for Detective Agencies appeared at the bottom of page 439 and was a boxed advert for a company apparently called ‘TraceSmart’, but in small letters before that were the words: ‘…1st call’
Glancing at other industry examples I saw they all followed the same trick – ensure you were the first name readers came across. I guessed 1st Investigations, the second company listed directly below were not happy bunnies: not only had TraceSmart sneaked in ahead of them with the …1st call deal, but their advert was five times the size. As an ex-ad agency co-director, I thought the copy, design and ethics led something to be desired, but after reading the following 20 entries I realised they were all using similar tactics regardless of what their actual services were.
Who knew Private Detection would be such a breeding ground for deceit?
I immediately gave up on print and started thinking how to make a website stand out. Thanks to my own experience and a few designers who recognised that my persona non grata status was completely unfounded and undeserved (or were happy to sell their souls for some freelance work) I was able to quickly get a website together that looked highly professional, while skilfully skirting around my complete lack of experience in police, army, security or any other industry that might suggest I had any business being in this…well, business (I had been feeling my once commodious copywriting skills from my previous professional life begin to slip away from me like a…disintegrating thing). I felt at that moment in time when I looked to set up my website (www.spenserforhire.com – just in case you forgot) an extensive history in high level sales and marketing seemed more important at that precise moment to help build up a client base was more useful than ten years of hand-to-hand combat in Mogadishu. I had plumped for a midway point between the ‘never been stumped’ style headline and a highly competitive pricing model. (Sitting in front of Mrs. Laverty I mentally kicked myself and vowed to do more desktop research around the more established business’ rate cards.)
“My pricing?” I switched from my Travolta grin, which I’d forgotten I was still doing, and which seemed to be unnerving Mrs. Laverty a little, and switched into my Paul Newman ‘aw shucks’ grin; it was a subtle change to the untrained eye, but required a whole different facial muscle routine, “Well, for me it is always about the service rather than the salary…” I made a note on my iPhone – I thought maybe that was something I could use on the site.
“That’s a very…” Mrs. Laverty started, but seemed unsure where to go.
“Honourable approach?” I suggested.
“…strange way to hope to keep a business alive.” She concluded.
Honour, in my experience is a much-underappreciated quality. I thought about defending my own but couldn’t get the question of exactly how under-priced I had made myself out of my mind. Rather than stew on that at this precise moment I asked, gently, “Why don’t you tell me about your problem, Mrs. Laverty?”
Mrs. Laverty pulled a small lace handkerchief from her sleeve, something I hadn’t ever seen anyone do outside of period theatre productions and dabbed at what appeared to me to be dry eyes, “It’s my daughter.”
I nodded sagely, and typed, “Daughter” into my iPhone note pad. I guessed that little fact could be something that would come in useful at some point later in this case.
“Ok”, I encouraged, in my very best compassionate, understanding manner, “What about your daughter?”
It was a tone I’d used many times when interviewing nervous job candidates – although normally it had been more along the lines of, “And why does your CV have regular six-month gaps between three-month periods of employment?” or, “So, I notice that your referee is the Head Electroconvulsive Therapist at The Priory. Could you tell me a little more about that?”
I nodded encouragement.
Mrs. Laverty dabbed with her handkerchief again, equally ineffectually or effectively if the aim was to keep her face tear free, and with what seemed to be a supreme effort said, “My daughter has apparently disappeared off the face of the earth.”
“She’s missing?” I asked.
The look Mrs. Laverty gave me suggested I had failed to grasp exactly how severe this situation actually was, and that a real Private Investigator would understand this went far beyond merely ‘missing’.
I nodded sympathetically with a dash of wisdom sprinked in as I typed into my iPhone: ‘100% record may be in danger.’
Follow Frank Spenser PI on his first case in ‘The 100% Detective’ available early 2019.